From May 15-June 4, a team of Indigenous Alaskans, local community members, and scientists will explore the continental shelf west of Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska. Their goal is to locate submerged cave and rock shelter entrances that would have been accessible to early inhabitants of the region.
The team will start the search for submerged caves and rock shelter entrances aboard Fishing Vessel Showtime. This is the first part of their expedition project to explore southeast Alaska within the United States Exclusive Economic Zone. Since the location of these submerged caves and rock shelters on the continental shelf places them closer to the coastlines of late Pleistocene (10,600 - 17,000 years ago) Alaska, the project has the potential of transforming our understanding of how and when people migrated to the Americas during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM).
The expedition team will test a GIS model developed by the co-principal investigator to locate caves on the now submerged landscape of southeast Alaska. They will use side-scan sonar to look for raised features and depressions on the submerged landscape, which will then be investigated with the SeaDrone remote operated vehicle (ROV) Inspector. Data collected via the ROV will provide preliminary confirmation of the seafloor features before the team explores, maps, and samples them by divers and the autonomous underwater vehicle SUNFISH® during the second part of the project in 2023. New caves identified will be named by the local southeast Alaskan communities to honor the significance of these sites to their heritage. Archaeological locations will be recorded and submitted to the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology. The side-scan data and ROV videos will be archived at the data warehouse of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
Our Submerged Past adopts what is known as “Two-Eyed Seeing” as the guiding principle of operation to bring together western and Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing. Members of the team represent local Indigenous knowledge including Haida and Tlingit, local fishing and community knowledge, and western science. Together, the team will work to build a better understanding of our past.
Funding for this expedition was provided by NOAA Ocean Exploration via its Ocean Exploration Fiscal Year 2021 Funding Opportunity.